Recently, I had a discussion with a friend about what kind of biological costs superpowers or magic might have on the biology of the brain. We discussed the impact of cognitive maps based on different biological and environmental systems, and why these are things that might be useful to consider for building fictional worlds. The reality is, the one thing so often overlooked in fictional worldbuilding, is that different species, and different mutations (in regards to superpowers or magic powers) would have a profound impact on the brain structure and perception of the living person/creature. So, it’s worth at least considering a few elements in how a cognitive map, and how a special ability or power might not just impact individual characters, but also fictional cultures as a whole.
You might be asking, well, what is a cognitive map?
To quote a 2012 academic article titled, Movement: Search, Navigation, Migration, and Dispersal:
“A cognitive map is an internal neural representation of the landscape in which an animal travels. Animals that use cognitive maps can “visualize” the landscape and solve orientation problems by referring to these maps. While it is generally accepted that birds and mammals can form cognitive maps, and that the hippocampus is the most important part of the brain in their formation, considerable controversy has centered around whether other animals, such as honeybees, can form similar maps.”
Different animals have different cognitive maps. Different kinds of sensory input changes how a particular species would navigate their environment. Say for example a Mantis Shrimp, which has the most complex visual system of any creature on this planet, would have an entirely different cognitive map than a human. Why? Because humans have 3 photoreceptors in their eyes, a Mantis Shrimp has 12-16 depending on which variety of mantis shrimp you’re talking about.
Now imagine for a moment, a mantis shrimp took an evolutionarily leap and became as intelligent and as self-aware as the human species, but still had that same complex visual system. Naturally, their cognitive map would be far different than humans.
Well, one sci-fi author by the name of Adrian Tchaikovsky, played with this idea (though not specifically mantis shrimp) in his books, Children of Time, and it’s sequel Children of Ruin.
Children of Time and Children of Ruin
Without giving too much away, Tchaikovsky’s books Children of Time and Children of Ruin, ask the question, what kind of civilization would a spider, an octopus, and a kind of fungi analog build if they were genetically engineered to evolve human level, or greater intelligence. The answer? One that is a hell of a lot different than humans. But, at the same time, a creature, regardless of its cognitive map, still has to solve the problem of energy, or rather how do you build a large-scale civilization and economic system that could support a large population with different cognitive maps. So even though their maps might be different, to build civilization there would be some overlapping concerns.
For example, (and again I am not going to give away too many spoilers and ruin these amazing books for you) Tchaikovsky, at the beginning of Children of Time, introduces a jumping spider that has been accidentally introduced to a virus that will artificially accelerate its intelligence. The spiders, with completely different senses, biological imperatives, and priorities, build a civilization throughout the book. This civilization is based on a creature that not only builds a web but uses it as a primary means of communication. In this particular species, the male is much smaller and is often eaten after mating with a female, and thus, their world also includes a component of significant gender inequality, where the larger female spiders control civilization. Tchaikovsky, uses these differences to highlight how difficult communication would be with a species with a fundamentally different cognitive map than humans.
So it’s something to think about. If you have giant intelligent snake people in your fictional world, you would have different cognitive maps.
Oh and also, another bone to pick about video game worlds like the Elder Scrolls, Argonians and Kadjit would never, ever be able to mimic human speech, and certainly not English. This is also a problem with the Planet of the Apes series. Biologically speaking, the physical apparatus of a mouth, nose, throat, tongue, teeth, pharynx, larynx, and other parts create a specific kind of instrument from which certain sounds are produced by humans. It’s why some animals make noises that humans could never mimic. So an Argonian speaking English would be akin to trying to get trumpet noises out of a violin, it’s completely impossible. Of course, with your fictional world you can certainly do what you like, but understand that even other primates can’t mimic the same sounds humans make. It’s why Koko the Gorilla, and Kanzi the Chimpanzee, both used sign language and/or soundboards to communicate with humans because they physically can’t produce the sounds for human language.
Different Cultures Have Different Cognitive Maps
In the book, Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle, linguistic anthropologist Daniel Everett discusses the Piraha tribe who live on the Amazon. Though he never explicitly discusses cognitive maps, at one point in the book, he takes some of the men from the Piraha, to a Brazilian City. While there, the members of the tribe are almost hit by cars, and have, what are basically anxiety attacks about being in the city. They really hate it. Why? Well first, Everett then talks about his own experiences in the Jungle for the first few years. In one story, he talks about a python hanging from a tree that the Piraha spot without a second thought. They try to point it out to him, but he can’t see it no matter how hard he tries. He talks about several other instances when he just wasn’t able to see or experience the things the Piraha tribe were, and he had, what was basically anxiety about it similar to the men’s experiences in the city.
One of the things that cultures do, is map their environment as they learn to navigate it. So, if you’re suddenly dropped in a new environment, say, as a Piraha person in a city they have never been to, or an Anthropologist, who grew up in a suburb and suddenly finds themselves in the dense jungle, the cognitive maps you have used your whole life will no longer function properly and you will struggle to adapt until you can construct a new cognitive map (which can take years for completely foreign environments). This is in part what creates culture shock for people who travel to other countries and cultures.
Remember, a cognitive map, is a mental picture of the environment around you. Over time, these maps become a part of our subconscious assumptions of the world and structure our biases. Different cultures are the result of different environmental conditions, and thus will have a different cognitive map as a result. Now, of course, the variation in which these maps can come in, is limited by human biology, but it’s work thinking about as you are building fictional worlds, that different cultures will have different perceptions and priorities based on the physical and cultural conditions on the ground. Of course, this certainly relates to my YouTube episode on the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis and is worth considering, how this also impacts language.
Neurodivergence, The Brain, and Super Powers
There are more than a few problems with the way that Super Powers and Magic use are displayed in popular fiction. Now granted, these aren’t things that occur to most people (myself included until recently) and of course, part of worldbuilding is the suspension of belief. But if you are doing a hard magic system, something you might want to consider is the physical toll that superpowers or magic might have on the nervous system and the configuration of the brain.
By definition, someone with super powers or the ability to wield magic would necessarily be neurodivergent. This term means, essentially, that the person’s brain would not work the same as the average population (Of course if your goal is to make a world where the norm is magic users, they would have normal cognition for that world).
I myself have a form of neurodivergence called Prosopagnosia, also known as faceblindness. This means that I am not able to hold faces in my memory the way that most people can. It can be incredibly frustrating when dealing with large crowds, but once I discovered I had the condition, I was able to create new strategies for moving and interacting through the world. You could say, in fact, that I, had to have a different cognitive map to function. Neurodivergence comes in a lot of flavors, it’s most often associated with people with psychiatric disorders, autism, ADHD, and a host of other conditions that humans have in the modern world. Divergence doesn’t make anyone less of a person, but it does mean that their cognitive maps are different.
Take Albert Einstein for instance. There are many who suggest that he was neurodivergent. There is speculation that he might have had one or all of the following: Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, on the Autism Spectrum, and possibly ADHD. There are a number of reasons for these speculations including his difficulty with social situations and his inability to function in traditional European school systems. But here’s the point, he was a super genius and that had a cognitive cost. His cognitive map was far different from the average human and the way he navigated that environment was different from most people. This, in turn, allowed him to tackle questions that most human beings could not, and he changed the world as a result.
Again, this isn’t saying that one kind of brain is necessarily better or worse than another, but that, in fact, different brains will approach problems and solutions differently. It’s one of the reasons that, I argue in my Ted Talk, that diversity is one of the most powerful tools in our arsenal as humans. But be warned, I’ve met quite a few people who believe they are better or worse than others because their brain is different, that’s simply not true. It’s like arguing which fruit is objectively the tastiest. It’s pointless. But it is empowering to understand how your own brain works isn’t it?
So, back to superpowers. One thing you might want to consider if your character has, say, telepathy or telekinesis, is that they would in fact be neurodivergent. They would have completely different senses that were required for those abilities to function.
Here’s the thing, Our brain only has so much processing power, and can only handle so many kinds of sense perceptions. Contrary to popular brief, we use all of our brain. This idea that we only use 10% of our brain is utter nonsense. So if you’re adding in other senses or abilities, realistically, it would have to be at the detriment of other senses or brainpower. Keep in mind that the human brain uses an average of 20% of our daily energy.
Also, as it turns out, Human senses are a hell of a lot more complicated than just the five we’ve been told about in elementary/primary education. Check out this NYT article for a better explanation on why we have more than five senses, and why senses are a complicated spectrum of experience.
Different sense perceptions necessitate different cognitive maps. After all, cognitive maps are built from our sense perception. You use all of your senses to build a mental model of the environment around you. So if you could fly, that would necessitate different sense perceptions and thus a different cognitive map. Consider the Marvel character, Daredevil, who has the ability to see based on what’s basically sonar, but the cost of that ability, was the standard human trichromatic visual system that we experience. That gave him some advantages, but anyone who watches the Netflix series, or reads the comics, knows that it comes with some significant disadvantages as well. Though personally, I think the advantages are a bit unrealistic even though I definitely enjoyed watching Matt Murdock kick ass in the Defenders.
So if you have a hard magic system, genetically engineered super powers, or something similar, you might want to consider what things your characters would have to sacrifice in order for those abilities to be viable. Much of the world’s fiction is filled with examples of this done horribly wrong, but then, a lot of the time, imagination is about playing with the unrealistic isn’t it? Considering the above could be a really interesting way to build a different kind of fictional world. After all, one of the problems we face in fiction is repetitive stories, so perhaps different cognitive maps could help us ask different kinds of questions about ourselves and what’s possible.
Special Thanks to my friend Lyndsie Clark for inspiring this blog. Go check out her website.
Also, you want to know more about how to build a more realistic fictional world using real Anthropology? Check out my co-authored book with Kyra Wellstrom, Build Better Worlds: An Introduction to Anthropology for Game Designers, Fiction Writers, and Filmmakers.
And of course, if you are looking for more free worldbuilding resources, check out my webpage on writing advice.
Good morning everyone,
Today, Kyra Wellstrom and I go live to read a sample chapter from our worldbuilding book and answer worldbuilding questions on YouTube at 11am MST. You can find the stream at https://youtu.be/QS3Yse-rv3g
The discussion will be recorded so if you miss it don’t fret! You will be able to find it at the same link. But if you can come live, we’d love to field your questions about worldbuilding and anthropology.
See you soon!
I am so incredibly happy to announce that as of this morning, our new book, Build Better Worlds: An Introduction to Anthropology for Game Designers, Fiction Writers and Filmmakers is now available for purchase on Amazon. Next week the first paperback copies will also come available.
This book is a product of a solid year of work with my amazing co-author Kyra Wellstrom. While my specialty is cultural anthropology, hers is biological anthropology giving the book a well rounded approach from both directions of the field. In many ways this book is an introduction to anthropology that you might take in a college course, but with a twist, it contains tips and ideas for building fictional world and lots of references to other pieces of fiction. We created this book to be a tool kit for creatives so that they can seriously consider real world cultural systems as they construct the world of their imagination.
In many ways this book was inspired by my several posts on Worldbuilding. This book is a much more expansive treatise on elements of real world and cultures. I hope those of you out there looking for a deep dive into cultures to improve your own work find this volume useful. Best of luck on all your projects!
Last week I posted a sample chapter from Build Better Worlds: An Introduction to Anthropology for Game Designers, Fiction Writers, and Filmmakers. The book is due out this fall and will cover a host of issues in worldbuilding from the perspective of Cultural Anthropology, Biological Anthropology, Linguistic Anthropology and Archaeology. By using the science to compare real life cultures and what core elements exist in them, the book talks about how better to create authentic fictional cultures.
Without further ado, here is the cover for the ebook version of Build Better Worlds. More info and the official release date coming soon!
Last weekend I was on a panel with three other awesome authors discussing some of the core points on Worldbuilding in fiction. With permission I recorded the panel for anyone to listen to. You can play the recording below.
You can also check out my co-written book on worldbuilding with another anthropologist. Check out Build Better Worlds: An Introduction to Anthropology for Game Designers, Fiction Writers, and Filmmakers.
Michael Kilman is a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Colorado at Denver. He is the author of The Chronicles of the Great Migration and coauthor of the forthcoming book (August 2020) Build Better Worlds: An Introduction to Anthropology for Game Designers, Fiction Writers and Filmmakers. He is also the host of the YouTube Channel Anthropology in 10 or Less you can find more resources on worldbuilding on this page at Writing and Writing Advice
Stant Litore is the author of Ansible, The Running of the Tyrannosaurs, The Zombie Bible, and Dante’s Heart. Besides science fiction and fantasy, he has written the writers’ toolkits Write Worlds Your Readers Won’t Forget and Write Characters Your Readers Won’t Forget, as well as Lives of Unstoppable Hope and Lives of Unforgetting, and has been featured in Jeff Vandermeer’s Wonderbook: An Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction. He has served as a developmental editor for Westmarch Publishing and holds a Ph.D. in English. He lives in Aurora, Colorado with his wife and three children and is currently at work on his next novel.
Jim Henderson is a writer of fun, varied, and technically sound science fiction adventures that also explore the human condition. A long-term Air Force veteran and cybersecurity professional with decades of experience in intelligence, communications, computers, and cyber operations, he has been a life-long aficionado of science fiction in almost every form – books, movies, TV, and games (role-playing, tabletop, and computer). When not mentally exploring the universe, he lives with his wife, stepson, and two dogs and enjoys hiking in the mountains of Colorado.
Charles McLean Redding is an artist and author local to Colorado Springs, as well as an active member of the local theater community. His Wasteland Bears have turned heads at conventions throughout the region over the last few years, and his upcoming works include Western Steampunk, Post-Apocalyptic Fantasy, and Asian Mythic Fantasy titles, as well as his ongoing Snack Pack: Raptor Comics.
Want a much expanded book on worldbuilding and anthropology? Check out Build Better Worlds: An Introduction to Anthropology for Game Designers, Fiction Writers, and Filmmakers, now available on Kindle!
Alright, so after reading my first two blog posts on world building you have some semblance of the kinds of dynamics that go on in crafting a cultural environment right?
Also, here they are if you need them.
So here’s the key question, how does your world impact your characters? This really is the biggest and most important piece of your world building and the easiest place to lose consistency. If you mess this up, your story could suck or at least have readers rolling their eyes. At the end of the day, it’s compelling characters that we care about. Also, don’t forget to listen to your characters. They have hopes and dreams too.
I touched on this a little bit last time, but this time we’re diving deep into a little social science of identity construction.
1. Nature vs Nurture
Since good old Descartes (but really all the way back to the ancient Greeks) wrote on Dualism in the 1600’s there has been a question of what influences us most, Nature or Nurture.
Most of you probably know this already but the answer is both.
Humans are not a tabula rasa (a blank slate). On a very physical level we have certain tendencies that have been fostered by natural selection. For example, human’s don’t have wings (of course if they do in your story you might need to consider various elements of winged culture) they walk on two legs (known as bipedalism) and they speak.
A terrible example of world-building done wrong because of the physical limitations is the Planet of the Apes series. Now, I enjoy those movies but what kills me is this. In order to have human speech, your mouth, throat, and tongue must have a certain shape to produce human noises. Apes do not have the physical apparatus for speech and even the shape of their face and neck would have to change significantly before they were capable of human-like speech. Still, they are fun films and I do enjoy them, but I can be heard grumbling like a disgruntled Star Wars fan after I watch them.
So that’s an example of nature, there are certain things in our neurology and physical makeup that put limitations on us as well as certain instinctual things that pop up.
There’s now also some science to suggest that your experiences and traumas may pass themselves on to the next generation. This surrounds epigenetics, and I am not going to get into this here (as I am definitely no expert in this area) and admittedly there is still a lot of unknowns about the science behind this, but if true, it certainly complicates things doesn’t it?
What about nurture? Well, there certainly isn’t something inherent or genetic in religion. If there was, we would have people who have never had any contact to Christianity spontaneously becoming Christian in remote areas (we don’t). We are enculturated (basically taught our culture) as we grow up. Our family brings us to church or perhaps we are raised Atheist or Buddhist or Pagan and learn the values and ideals of those practices (remember that purity stuff back in part 1). A huge portion of your personality comes down to nurture.
Speaking of which…
Personality is one of those that is a hard mix of both. If any of you out there reading this have more than one child, you know that they are born with a tendency towards a certain personality. Some children are more cautious, some are absolutely fearless (I’ve got both types and it’s fascinating to see the difference). Some have short tempers and are emotional while others are calm in almost any circumstance. Add environmental factors and it shapes and reshapes their personality. People always have tendencies but the wonderful thing about human beings is that we are capable of changing the way we experience the world, it’s just that a lot of us don’t because it’s a lot of work. As some of you frequent readers know, I have spent a great deal of time working on meditation and have seen changes in my own thinking and experiences, but damn is it hard!
So how does this relate to your character? Well, what elements of nature and nurture come into play? If you have a genetically engineered winged population that’s going to change the experience of your character. Are there benevolent vampires? Well, they gotta eat, right? Perhaps your humans have undergone gene editing to live on Mars but suddenly find themselves back on Earth? Robert Heinlein’s famous sci-fi book Stranger in a Strange Land posits the question of a human who is raised by Martians returning to earth and how he struggles to understand what it means to be human with some fascinating cultural results. So, just in the nature/nuture part, there’s a lot to consider.
2. Imagined Past
So, before I get into this, when I use the phrase ‘Imagined Past’ I don’t mean that something is made up. What it means is that our upbringing and cultural perspective foster history in such a way that we imagine that one event is important and another isn’t. Of course, there are objectively more and less important events in history, but how we imagine those events unfolding is based on things like culture and ideology.
The reality is, history is always messy as hell. I don’t care what event you are talking about. Nothing is ever straightforward and simple. Remember our discussion in part one of world-building on Power and Resistance? That’s why.
The Imagined past is your perspective and your wider culture’s perspective on history and events. They are an interpretation of what happened and why they happened that way.
Let’s take an example that is debated every October, Columbus Day.
If you are a fan of Columbus Day you might say that we should honor a man who changed the world and ‘discovered’ the Americas. Here is a perspective on that point of view.
If you are of indigenous heritage though or perhaps you’ve read some pretty terrible (and true things) about Columbus… you might be a bit more critical of this point. For that perspective check out this article.
But where you sit on the side of Columbus isn’t the point here. The point is, both sides IMAGINE THE PAST and take a certain perspective on what happened and if the events were good and we should honor Columbus, or they were bad and we should ax the holiday. I am, admittedly very critical of Columbus day, but it is impossible to argue that 1492 wasn’t a very important year in world history. After Europeans realized there was a huge chunk of populated territory waiting to be exploited, the world changed significantly. The event happened but how we interpret it changes in our imagination and our perspective. That is imagined past.
So why should you think about imagined past in your worldbuilding? Well, if you have a story where two sides are at war, you might consider having characters from both sides of the conflict. For example, In Avatar the Last Airbender, where four different nations rule the world (one for each of the four elements) the Fire Nation, the conquerors have a very different imagined past as the Earth Kingdom, whom the Fire Nation are trying to subjugate. The amazing thing about that world is that you have characters from all four nations (I really recommend that series if you aren’t familiar), and you get an amazing backstory and shift in perspectives of characters from different nations and even variety within each of the nations (Remember in Part 1 we talked about how every population is variable?) So consider that in your world-building, how do your characters imagine the past? How can this create conflict? Could the sharing of a perspective of the various perspectives on a historical event change the character interactions? Could it further entrench them? Perhaps part of the past was hidden and is now revealed and changes how charters see things? Think of how your favorite stories do this well.
Red alert Red alert! If you have heard this term before and don’t understand it, you might cringe at its use. I promise I don’t have some crazy agenda here so just hear me out.
It’s actually really quite simple.
Intersectionality = Identity is complex and variable
Intersectionality is really about considering the various components of identity. Identity is really complex.
I will use myself as an example to begin with. A White, Middle Class, Straight, Male, Raise Catholic (and now Buddhist), with a Graduate Degree in Anthropology and raised on the East Coast is going to have certain kinds of expectations, perspectives, and thoughts that will impact his perspective. All of those components, plus my personal experiences went into making me the person typing this blog right now.
Now, imagine an African American, Woman, Wealthy, Gay, raised Atheist, with a degree in Engineering, and Raised on the West Coast. She’s going to have very different experiences, expectations and perspectives then I do right?
Intersectionality shows us that Identity is Conditional. It is based on the various ingredients of your life and your experiences and fosters different identities.
But it’s still not even that simple! Because imagine you took another copy of me and raised me five blocks away in near identical upbringing both of us are still going to end up different, aren’t we? We may have a lot in common but maybe my clone loves Nickleback (which means we couldn’t be friends) and thus we may end up going to different concerts and meeting and encountering different people and thus changing our experiences and perspectives.
Let’s talk about freewill really briefly here too. Though, if you want a prolonged philosophical discussion on this check out my blog on Freewill. When studying a culture Anthropologists often look at something we call ‘agency’. Agency means basically, your ability to act based on the rules (formal and informal) of the society. Agents are individuals within a society that have to function based on cultural norms, laws, and expectations. So yes, we do have free will, but our culture puts rules around what that means. For more on this check out a YouTube Video on ‘Field Theory’ Also if this or anything is confusing to you, feel free to comment and I will do my best to clarify.
There is nothing wrong with difference, but if we want to understand someone else’s perspective and why they might think or act in a certain way, then intersectionality, understanding the conditional nature of identity is a good tool to consider.
What about intersectionality in your characters? Well, intersectionality can help you to avoid those annoying stereotypes and tropes, such as strong women come from tragic backgrounds. Maybe, for example, the woman in question was raised as a blacksmiths daughter and had to work with her father and deal with difficult customers on a daily basis. Or perhaps you have a character that comes from a race of elves that are savage and violent, yet the character has adopted a pacifistic religion after a personal revelation? The point is you can look at the conditions of your characters lives and upbringing. Some people make character profiles in this regard where you can plot different parts of your character identities. I don’t do this unless I run into a roadblock, but some of you may find it useful to do so. Really, there is no wrong answer for method in writing.
Oh, one more thing, your identity changes every day little by little (or a lot if your world comes crashing down) based on your experiences and daily interactions. You are never the same person from day to day. Consider this also in your characters.
4. Personal Bias and Blind Spots in knowledge
All of the above contributes to this section. Everyone has blind spots in knowledge. Everyone has bias and limitations as to what they can see and understand. If you put me in front of a motorcycle and tell me to fix it I will blink at you until my eyelashes fall off. If you tell me to understand the experience of a Muslim woman growing up in Sri Lanka, I probably can’t help you there either. There is nothing wrong with having blind spots, the problem is, when we assume that blind spots equal weakness and we make arrogant statements to cover it up (I can’t tell you how many times I myself have done this only to realize what I was doing later).
So back to me and my conditional identity. I grew up on the East Coast. On the East Coast there is often a kind of linguistic style in play where it’s actually weird and awkward not to interrupt people. We are very often active communicators cutting each other off mid-sentence and it’s not considered rude. Also, I come from a huge family. Now you might think your family with 3 kids is big, but my Dad had 14 brothers and sisters and I have 3 brothers, with some of my aunts and uncles, who were my age raised almost like siblings. So, on top of this east coast conversational style (Here’s a wonderful YouTube on that for you who really want to understand the linguistics of it) and my huge family upbringing, I can be a loud, arrogant, interrupting son of a bitch. Now living in Denver Colorado, it took me a long time to understand that people don’t always appreciate the way I communicate because this region in the Rocky Mountains has a very different conversational style. So there is a huge blind spot for me. Understanding that blind spot was really powerful and helped me to see the way I bulldoze people in conversation sometimes.
So what are your character blind spots? Is your character a Buddhist monk and barely knows anything of Christianity? Is your character a male who suddenly finds himself in a female-dominated society? Hell, look at Star Trek TNG, is your character a Klingon growing up in a human world and trying to bridge both cultures? What kinds of things wouldn’t your character easily understand because of their training or knowledge? A pacifist priest isn’t usually going to understand combat. A warlord may not understand diplomacy. Good characters have flaws and weakness and blindspots. No one likes a perfect character. They are boring. My character Mimi, in Mimi of the Nowhere, doesn’t trust easily. She struggles with sharing intimate parts of herself after a long life living on the streets. Blindspots can also be where your characters grow and change. The world you built could suddenly come crashing in and force them to change and alter their identity.
I hope this short series was helpful for some of you on your writing journey. Certainly, there are other blogs and podcasts and stuff on worldbuilding out there, but I hope sharing some of my knowledge and experience from my field of study helped you to consider some things about your writing.
I am more than happy to entertain other questions and perhaps write future editions to this series but unless someone has a specific question about worldbuilding, I’m gonna call this series complete for now. Good luck with your writing journey!
My book series, the Chronicles of the Great Migration are about giant walking cities in a dystopian future. When I first started writing about this idea, I thought I was the most original person in the world. Arrogant as hell right? It’s okay, go on and laugh at me. I completely understand. I laugh at myself all the time now.
You know what made it really funny? I started writing this series in 2011, thinking, wow, no one has ever thought of an idea quite like this before. I was completely oblivious to the award-winning and very wonderful books by Philip Reeve who wrote the series ‘The Mortal Engines’, which is coming out in film form this year. When I discovered this two years ago, it made my heart ache a little and it certainly humbled me. But I loved my characters so much that I decided to resume writing.
Then, I had to laugh some more when earlier this year, this article came out. Imagine a World of Walking Cities and references a man who came up with the idea in 1964, twenty years before I was even born.
But here’s the thing. It actually doesn’t matter. Now I want to note here, that as a University Professor, plagiarism is wrong and immoral, and you should never ever steal the work of another human being. But, when it comes to grand ideas, overarching themes and concepts, there is, and has always been a lot of borrowing going on. Even Ursula K LeGuin (who is arguably one of the greatest writers of the 20th century) grappled with this in her article Art, Information, Theft, and Confusion
A great example of this is the sci-fi novel Dune vs Star Wars. Now Dune was published in 1965 and George Lucas did admit that the text heavily influenced him. In fact, here’s a short YouTube video, on just how much Star Wars pulled from Dune (Hint: It’s a lot… like a lot.)
But, are Dune and Star Wars the same thing? Certainly not. Yes, a lot of borrowing went on, but the Universes of each story are very different and explored different questions. (Star Wars Fans don’t hate me but I think Dune is the superior of the two).
Similarly is there anything super unique about a boy going through a Wizarding school? No of course not, that theme has been done to death, but JK Rowling made it her own and built a unique and interesting world and the characters that go with it.
So, does your story share common elements with another? So what if it does. Here is a short list of the things that actually matter in crafting a good story.
- You have taken a concept and played with it in a unique way
What makes a story a part of a fantasy genre? Things like magic, warriors, rogues, special objects or locations? Fantasy might be the genre with the most overlap because some of it’s core characteristics require that overlap. But what makes a series like the King Killer Chronicles or Mistborn standout? Both these use magic systems, but both have taken the concept of magic and added some interesting and unique elements to it. In return, the goals and experiences of the characters are necessarily also unique.
For example, Allomancy (one of the three systems of magic from Mistborn) has the magic wielders consuming and then using certain metals for their powers. Some people can burn certain metals, and others cannot, while some people can burn all the metals. This unique form of magic will necessitate a specific kind of problem-solving and character conflicts. For example, two Mistborn (people who can burn all the metals) fight with the knowledge that each opponent probably has a limited supply of each metal. This creates certain plot points and influences thinking in each character.
Science Fiction might be the genre that has the most arena of play and thus allow for all kinds of variation. Do you have aliens? AI? Superhumans? Genetic Engineering? Alternative history? It’s a very broad genre and there are endless things to explore.
So for example in my series, yes there are giant migrating cities (they are really more moving mountains because of their size) but you also have telepathy, artificial intelligence, life-extension, superstorms and a variety of undead creatures called ‘Recycled’. All of these various elements work together to create a unique world.
By themselves, none of those elements are unique and can be found in a hundred different science fiction novels.
Make your world unique and colorful. Small changes to world building can create some really interesting results. Why? Because cultures and worlds are holistic. A change in a political sphere will change economics, kinship, religion, gender, class, ect. Trust me on this, I’m an anthropologist and we see it all the time. A small change in your world building can create some pretty significant results.
2. Are your characters unique or can they have a unique experience?
Certainly, if the universe you are writing in is unique then unique character experiences are too difficult to manage. But what if you write something like romance or thrillers that are limited to the current reality in which we reside?
Your characters are your strength regardless of the genre. Ultimately, what people are reading your book for is the characters. If they don’t give a shit about your characters, then they aren’t going to keep reading. Empathy with characters is really important. Check out this YouTube Video on this topic for more.
But beyond empathy what makes your characters unique? Or perhaps their particular interactions are unique. What makes your characters one of a kind and unforgettable? Are they funny? Do they have an interesting internal struggle? Do they have a really interesting talent or fatal flaw? Maybe they have all of these things? A unique and/or interesting character will change the story for the better.
Think of it this way. If you put a character in a situation where someone tries to run them off a road in an act of road rage, not all characters (or people) are going to behave equally right? How they interact with a stressful situation can tell a lot about whether your character is interesting or not. And, life is pretty stressful, even without an evil robot from the 29th century coming to kill you.
3. What’s the change agent?
It’s not true that all characters change. In fact, having a character stay the same while the rest of the world changes around them, can also be a fascinating story element. One thing that makes a story unique is whatever is causing the change.
It could be as simple as that new woman in the characters life, or perhaps someone stole their wallet and the next they know, they end up in a parallel universe where humans are extinct and ruled by a telepath race of snails… sorry I go on tangents a lot in real life too haha.
The point is though, what is causing things to change? Stephen King in his book ‘On Writing’ talks about how most of the time, he likes to put a character in a particular situation and see if they can work their way out of it. So, in what ways would your character solve their issue? Or could they even? Maybe the whole point of your story is that they can’t solve anything and they are a bumbling idiot and it’s sheer luck that gets them through. Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams played with this a lot. The results are pretty comedic.
4. At the end of the day, it’s about telling a compelling story, even if many of your elements have been done to death.
So, to summarize it doesn’t matter if elements of your story have been done to death. I mean… time travel right? How many books and movies have explored that? But think of the ones you enjoy, what made you love them?
It is all about owning your story, about taking those old ideas and putting a fresh spin on them, that’s how you tell a great story. Consider some of these elements if you ever feel stuck or if your beta readers tell you they were bored.
Never forget, it’s okay to give up on a story if it’s not working. Sometimes putting something aside will make room for something even better. Life is too short to bang your head against the wall. If you aren’t excited about your story, the reader probably won’t be either.
Like anything else, writing is a skill, one that must be cultivated and developed.
It is certainly true there are some writers who are born geniuses who probably came out of the womb with a pen in hand ready to write their first lines, but that’s not me.
I’ve spent a lot of time writing and learning and writing some more. I had the advantage of taking a few courses in college-level creative writing, but not everyone has that opportunity or experience. So here below I wanted to provide some tips and some resources about some of the things I have learned that have helped me along the way. There are a probably 1000 other blogs and a 1000 other books that do this (I am going to suggest some too), but I hope that some of what’s here is helpful to those of you reading this.
Resources are at the bottom.
A quick note before we dive in. Recently a colleague of mine (and fellow anthropologist) and myself published a book on worldbuilding. So if worldbuilding is something you are interested in, check out our book Build Better Worlds an Introduction to Anthropology for Game Designers, Fiction Writers, and Filmmakers on Amazon. This book has all the building blocks needed for building a more authentic and immersive world.
1. Read a lot. But read like a writer, not like a reader.
It’s pretty common advice. Read lots and lots of books and short stories in your genre and outside your genre. Get off social media and actually read, or listen to audiobooks during your commute, but for the love of god read! Yes, this is essential, no exceptions. If you can’t read consistently you cannot be a good writer.
But there’s another level to this that isn’t talked about quite as often. You aren’t just reading as a fan. What’s important is that you are reading as a writer. What does it mean to read as a writer? It means to read and once in a while stop and reflect.
Didn’t like that particular passage? Stop right there. Why didn’t you like it? Think about it deeply. What didn’t work? Was it poorly worded? Did it mess with the flow of the plot? Dig deep and think about it. Part of learning to be a better writer is exploring what doesn’t work. It’s actually helpful to read stuff that sucks once in a while.
Loved a particular passage? Stop right there. Why was the line or passage powerful? What about it struck you? Did that line make you feel a connection to the character? Why did that work at that particular? I call these passages juicy morsels and always look for the ‘recipe’ for how they are crafted.
Are you bored with reading this book? Are you considering putting it down? Again, why? You might not always be able to put your finger on it, but there are powerful lessons if you can.
If you start doing this with every book you read, over time you will build up a solid idea of what makes writing potent and powerful and what makes it terrible. You can even do this with books you love that you’ve read before. Which passages are your favorite or least favorite, why?
A quick note here:
No, you don’t have to keep all of this shit in your head as your writing. Write and reflect, write and reflect and yes, you should do more writing and reflecting. No professional athlete ever became that way by reading about technique over and over again. They watch others play, and yes they might read, but they go out there and experiment with these things and find out what feels good to them and what works and what doesn’t. All of my thoughts here are just that, things for you to consider and try, if they don’t work discard them. I am just sharing with you what has helped me on my writing journey.
Which leads me to my next bit of advice:
2. Play play play
Why are you writing again? Seriously, think about it. Why are you writing? You like it, that’s why. If you don’t like it, stop. No one is making you write that novel. Do it because it’s fun and you enjoy it.
But here’s the other thing, experimentation is important. When I was learning guitar, I tried many different styles of music. Why? Well first because my teacher insisted, but then I started to realize that exploration made me better. It helped me to understand the things I favored in a new way. If you are a sculptor and you only ever use clay, how do you know what’s possible in other mediums?
Do you only like to read and write science fiction? Well, have you tried to write something else? Try writing a short-story in historical fiction, take a flash fiction workshop, read and write some horror, or try some romance on for size. Why? Because it will make you a better writer and you might learn something about yourself and your writing you didn’t know before. Hell, try to write some spoken word or lyrical poetry. Those things are really hard and if you can do them half effectively then you will have expanded your skill set and learned more about your own style.
Have fun, play and explore, remember to keep the joy of writing on your mind, because sometimes it is tedious. When it is, try something new or explore. Mix it up, people!
3. A large portion of what you write is going to be garbage
Seriously, accept this. Honesty about your own work is a really powerful tool. Notice I said honestly and not being overly critical.
How many times does a baseball player strike out, or hit fouls? How many hours do they spend in batting practice or batting cages? How many times do they swing and miss? Do you honestly believe that writing is any different?
There is absolutely nothing wrong with writing garbage. There is nothing wrong with looking at those 5 pages you forced out of your brain for the last hour and saying, damn this sucks and deleting it. You have not lost anything by doing this!
Shitty writing is part of the process. My first published book, Mimi of the Nowhere, was my fourth attempt at a book. The first 2 are complete garbage and the 3rd one, Upon Stilted Cities, required a lot of reworking to make it what it is today. They will never see the light of day. I’ve probably written several dozen short stories that are total shit. I would go so far as to say that a quarter of what I write is absolutely terrible.
And so what if it is? Does that mean I am wasting a quarter of my time? Hell no! The more bad writing you do, the quicker you get to the good stuff, that stuff that works, the stuff that makes readers root for your characters or cringe when something awful happens to them.
A pity party doesn’t help anyone and definitely doesn’t help you become a better writer. Give yourself permission to write garbage, to look at the page and laugh because it’s so terrible. I cannot tell you how freeing it was the day I finally accepted this.
4. Routine is really powerful, so are deadlines and goals.
I belong to a Facebook Group called My 500 Words. It’s a group that seeks to get you to write at least 500 words a day every single day for at least 31 days. Why? To build a habit, to make writing a serious routine. It was not until I started building a writing routine that anything started to happen.
Here is where you are thinking, but I don’t have time for this? I work full time, or I am a parent, or I have other obligations. Sorry to blunt, but, bullshit. What you are saying when you make excuses is that writing isn’t that important to you right now. There’s nothing wrong with that, if it’s not a priority that’s fine, no judgment here sometimes life doesn’t allow for writing to be a priority. Believe me, I understand that more than you can know.
Otherwise though, suck it up and sit at that chair, cause this shit doesn’t happen by itself. Excuses are like assholes, everyone has one. Besides, someone usually says to me they don’t have time right now, after telling me how they just binged this amazing show on Netflix or played through this video game. If you want to write, you’re gonna have to cut some of that TV and gaming time out (again this was hard for me to accept at first too.)
When you’re ready to make writing a priority, do so. No one says you have to dedicate your free time to writing. Do it because you want to because that story is burning in the back of your mind and wants to come to life on a page. Prioritize writing because you love it, not because you feel like you have to. Writing can be a powerful act of creation and joy. If you create a writing routine, you can bring your dream of being a writer to life.
The last thing I want to add here is that setting deadlines is really helpful. Events like NaNoWriMo can be really helpful because it is a community of people who set a deadline and a goal. For me it was setting dates with an editor. This has proven to make sure that I am constantly working on something or else I will have to start staying up all night to finish. I cannot tell you how helpful that’s been for me.
Oh one more thing. Sitting there and telling yourself that your not good enough or that you suck, or that you will never be published isn’t useful at all. Just remember, it’s a skill, like everything else. You can do this.
Note: No one is paying me for any of these recommendations (Though I will happily take a check if someone wants to give me one) These are all things I found sincerely useful in my writing journey.
When it comes to these resources I do not recommend binging these. No, you should not watch an entire YouTube channel on writing in one day! (You should be writing dammit!) Take your time, spend 10-30 minutes at once. Let your brain absorb these ideas and these thoughts so that they are in your subconscious while you are writing. I am a college professor, and what I can tell you is that it takes time to absorb no ideas and concepts. Cramming is only good for the short term, and if you truly want to be a writer, you’re in it for the long game.
YouTube Channels for Writing
Just Write (Episodes Focus on what works and doesn’t in writing)
Hello, Future Me (Focuses on particular Writing Elements such as villains, systems of magic and other key pieces) I particularly recommend the episode on Hard Magic Systems for the Fantasy Writers out there. If you are writing fantasy you may also want to consider Brandon Sanderson’s blog on Laws of Magic
Books on Writing That I found helpful:
For me, this was one of the most helpful books. It isn’t just about editing, in fact, I would argue that it is a critical look about what works in writing and what doesn’t. I can’t recommend this book enough.
A lot of people don’t like Stephen King, that’s fine. But what is impossible to deny is that he consistently writes novels that sell millions of books. There is a reason for that, I have spent many hours critically reading Kings work and that’s largely because of this powerful book on what it means to be a writer. I highly recommend it.
This is a book that is filled with tips and advice on writing that will help you improve your craft. Again, another one I thought was very useful.
Yes, we all need reminders about grammar, unless of course, you are an editor already. This book is really helpful
Another good one for thinking about the flow of your writing and how to craft better sentences and paragraphs.
Bradbury’s book on Writing is a mixture of poetry and the passion he feels for writing. It’s another book that is worth contemplating as you type or scribble your prose.
That’s all Folks!
I sincerely hope this was all helpful. If you have further questions or thoughts or anything to add please feel free to comment below.
Also, shameless self-promotion here, but if you like Science Fiction check out my book Mimi of the Nowhere, the first book in my Science Fiction series, the Chronicles of the Great Migration.